Two recent cases in Nova Scotia involving sexual assault charges — one that saw a man sentenced to 90 days in jail for an all-night, violent sexual assault, and another in which a judge acquitted a man who said he thought the woman had consented — has some people calling for change.
Dalhousie University law professor Wayne MacKay said the cases highlight the need to review laws around sexual assault in a province that has low conviction rates and historically modest sentences for such crimes, which he says deters those assaulted from coming forward.
"The difficult situation for victims of sexual assault continues to be emphasized [in the courts], and certainly that was very evident in terms of the process in the Jian Ghomeshi trial and in both of these cases," said MacKay.
Law needs review
Mitchell Leeander Goodwin was sentenced earlier this week to 90 days in jail to be served on weekends for sexual assault and uttering threats after having nonconsensual sex with a woman in early 2012.
CBC News reported that the Halifax man told the victim "you look like someone who just got raped" after he had sexually assaulted her all night even after she begged him to stop. The Nova Scotia Supreme Court was told at one point, the woman tried to leave the bedroom, but Goodwin grabbed her by her hair and dragged her back.
In Kentville, the Local Xpress reported that Joshua-Douglas Everette Jackson was acquitted of sexually assaulting a fellow Acadia University student after a judge ruled the man mistakenly believed he had the woman's consent to initiate intercourse in 2014.
Judge Alan Tufts told Kentville provincial court the pair were lying in bed together and when the complainant awoke, Jackson realized she had been asleep, which does not necessarily mean he knew, or ought to have known, she was asleep, the Local Xpress reported.
MacKay said cases like Jackson's highlight the need to review how consent laws are interpreted.
"There seemed to be agreement that there was not any explicit consent but instead it focused on the issue of honest and reasonable mistaken belief," said MacKay, explaining that the honest and reasonable mistaken belief defence means that although there was no explicit consent given, a reasonable person would have interpreted the encounter as consensual.
"The law itself is somewhat slanted towards making sure the accused is protected and that false convictions do not go forward, which is not a bad thing because we don't want false convictions, but it doesn't adequately protect victims who have legitimate and serious complaints."
Sexual assault crimes under-reported
MacKay said sexual assault crimes are also significantly under-reported.
"The under-reporting at least in part is based on the fact that the conviction rate is so low, so in that sense there's certainly not a lot of successful convictions that come once cases are reported," said MacKay.
"In the case of the man serving 90 days on the weekend, that certainly would suggest to a lot of people that the courts may still not be taking the crime as seriously as it should given its very severe impact on the victim and how serious a thing sexual assault is."
Jackie Stevens, executive director of the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre in Halifax, said the outcomes of sexual assault cases often do not provide a sense of justice for victims.
Stevens said the lengthy legal process can be retraumitizing and long-term ongoing support for victims isn't readily available. She says more supports are needed in Nova Scotia's justice system.
"Having more victims support after sexual assault both in the community and through the court process would certainly help people in terms of feeling like they have support and they're prepared for the court process," said Stevens.